Time is running out. Their backs are against the wall. It's now or never to make a stand.
While that could easily descirbe the San Jose Earthquakes late season playoff push, it can also serve as the rallying cry for their CONCACAF Champions League campaign. Already two games through the four game group stage, the Quakes have yet to collect a point, and they face almost certain elimination from the tournament. But they are not out yet, and amazingly must merely follow a simple recipe to cook up a trip to the knockout rounds. How is that even possible?
First off, to advance from the group stages of the CCL is relatively straightforward: finish at the top of a three-team round-robin through four home-and-away matches. The Earthquakes, despite dropping consecutive 1-0 losses on the road to start the tournament, still have the two return legs at Buck Shaw Stadium to make amends.
Group toppers CD Heredia of Guatemala took care of business down at home and now face two tough road matches in North America. San Jose vanquishers in round one of group play the Montreal Impact have only that result, at Stade Saputo, to point to in the standings and sit 3 points behind the Guatemalans. The Impact will host Heredia later this month with a chance to overturn its earlier loss and improve its own chance of advancing. In fact, the Earthquakes will be big fans of Montreal for that September 24 match -- they need an Impact win to keep alive their own chances in the tournament.
But the most critical ingredient in the Quakes CCL comeback is to win at home, and to do it in a comprehensive way. And that process begins on Tuesday when the Impact visit Buck Shaw Stadium. San Jose needs a victory -- anything less and they will be eliminated from the tournament -- and ideally by more than one goal. Any manner of clean sheet victory would be great, but one involving a crooked number of goals for the Quakes is ideal. In addition, San Jose will need the same result on October 23 when Heredia come calling to the Bay Area.
If the above scenario plays out, and all three teams in the "Group of Death" hold serve at home, they will finish tied atop the standings with 6 points each. Like any self-respecting tournament, after head-to-head results are considered, the next tiebreaker to determine which of the three teams moves on to the Spring's knockout round is goal differential. If San Jose can post a big multi-goal win against each of the Impact and Heredia, that should be enough to give it claim to the tiebreaker. The danger comes in winning, but by a close score, especially if the opponent gets on the board.
The third tiebreaker to determine the group winner is away-goals, which to date in the Group of Death has yet to be a factor. All three results so far have finished 1-0 to the home side. Keeping both Montreal and Heredia off the scoreboard will be paramount to San Jose's chances. The good news: The Quakes have pitched shutouts in 4 of its last 5 games at Buck Shaw. That defensive magic will need to continue.
Does San Jose still control its own destiny in the CCL? Not exactly, as mentioned above, since Heredia could claim passage through as group winners with a win or perhaps a draw at Montreal. But the Quakes do control what happens at Buck Shaw, and that begins Tuesday.
The Montreal Impact currently sit in second place in the Eastern Conference and look assured of reaching the MLS Cup playoffs. However, a top three seed in the playoffs -- a necessity if the Impact want to avoid the dreaded wildcard play-in game -- is not guaranteed, and Montreal coach Marco Schällibaum will certainly have that to consider when filling out his starting XI to face San Jose. Tiring out his squad ahead of a difficult MLS test against the Vancouver Whitecaps on the weekend might not be prudent for the rookie coach, but given that the Impact traveled to San Jose ahead of Tuesday's match with his top players, including the likes of Marco Di Vaio, Alessandro Nesta, and Patrice Bernier, a full-strength XI is all but assured.
Schällibaum's counterpart in San Jose will have a similar problem on his hands Tuesday. Interim coach Mark Watson stated after the scoreless draw against the Whitecaps last Saturday that he will manage his roster appropriately for Tuesday's CCL match. Appropriate is likely a code-word for a measured starting eleven -- mixing in previously suspended players like Rafael Baca and Steven Lenhart with guys that have put in good minutes this season like Jason Hernandez and Justin Morrow. And don't be surprised if the indefatigable Chris Wondolowski starts at forward: he really wants to see the Quakes advance from the group. Watson was surprised at how strong a team the Impact fielded in the first round of the CCL; perhaps he will follow suit in the return leg. Keep those cleats at the ready, Sam Cronin, Marvin Chavez, and Jaime Alas.
No matter the roster from either side, the only result that will help San Jose is a win. That much is clear. And with that backs-against-the-wall mentality feeding them, the Earthquakes will be all-in to earn all three points against the Impact.